Lesson 20: Persona & Improv
I'd been planning a lesson on persona and inspired by a question from a reader of my blog Ronan Anderson, I have combined the topic with improv. He said: “I'm very curious about your opinion on the place of emotion, riffing and the idea of finding one's voice. Comedians seem to develop authentic material quickly and intuitively by listening to their heart and applying emotion to a topic. For example, Billy Connolly didn't write things down, Bill Burr says he just riffs on themes, Dara O'Briain says jokes come to him fully formed once he's taken a comedic stance on something whereas Brian Regan comes at things from a place of 'exaggerated immaturity.' It seems that they all develop material as much from the heart as from the head. Do you think that stand up can be done emotionally as well as intellectually? I'd love to hear your take on this matter in a future post or perhaps you've already addressed this elsewhere?"
What does a stand-up need to be able to take a theme and riff around it like Bill Burr? Or to have stories, routines and entire shows that are never committed to paper like Billy Connolly? Or to find a comedic stance on a topic that leads to jokes? The answer is they need to have found their persona. That elusive mix of tone-of-voice, attitude, style and worldview, the non-intellectual, emotional, messy stuff of that unique person that the audience want to laugh with; this is the ‘exaggerated immaturity' of Brian Regan, the 'voice' Ronan alludes to.
What is a stand up persona? It's your on-stage character, a simplified exaggerated version of yourself. It's the thing that is funny about you on stage over-and-above the material. Why is it important to have a clear persona? It gives you a character that ties in with the material and helps make it work. It also makes the comic perspective consistent. The audience get where you're coming from, and you follow that perspective throughout. It helps you find the angle you'll take on any given topic and the kind of jokes and material you'll write for yourself.
Stand-ups typically find this persona by going on stage repeatedly and seeing what audiences respond to. And often what works for them is a surprise. The famous example is Jack Dee starting off cheery and positive and only finding his voice when, disillusioned and on the verge of giving up, he went on stage in a grumpy, cynical mood. Amy Schumer and Bridget Christie also both found their voices by moving away from the characters they adopted at the outset and becoming closer to their real selves on stage. Milton Jones, however, moved in the opposite direction, finding his material worked better when he was less himself and more a cartoon oddball. Finding this persona is an absolute prerequisite to riff around an idea, craft a joke in the moment or to spontaneously deliver a story with laughs throughout. You can much more readily and quickly find the funniness in an idea if you have found and understood the funniness in yourself. And the funniness of the resulting material is inseparable from the funniness of the persona.
Ronan, in his question, gives a series of examples where the creation of material seems to have happened without the considered intellectual work of 'writing'. Another part of the answer to this question then, is where and how comedians write. A new comic might sit down at a laptop and write out a detailed word-for-word script. For example, Geoff Whiting told me that many years ago he compered a gig that Sarah Millican was doing as a new act. He noticed that she had pages of verbatim notes that she had carefully learned which, as she acknowledged to him, left her no flexibility to deal with anything that happened in the room and no scope for ad-libbing. This won't be her practice now of course, but often stand-ups start out doing exactly this.
Often though, a stand-up's writing might be more at the level of bullet points, with ideas turned over in the mind and tried out, out loud, in rehearsal (if the act does rehearse), then spontaneously taking shape in performance. The performance is captured as audio or video which feeds back into the next iteration of the material. Eventually, it settles down into a fairly consistent form without ever being fixed into a word-for-word script. I tend to recommend a hybrid approach where – if it suits the comic to do so – a script is written and honed but then not learned! It's reduced to bullet points and then spoken afresh in rehearsal and eventually on stage.
Speaking with Logan Murray for my book, he argued that the unconscious part of the brain that comes up with ideas is sharper and more creative than the conscious brain. So giving the playful, unconscious, ideas-generating, brain some stage time can lead to better results than having everything thoroughly prepared in advance and delivered in exactly that way. Indeed, the opposite extreme from writing a word-for-word script is writing-on-stage. To take an extreme situation of ad-libbing, the stand-up show Set-List, which I saw for the first time this Edinburgh, is predicated on stand-ups improvising in response to a topic that is flashed up to them (and the audience) on a screen at the back of the stage. The conceit is that the topics taken together are a set-list the comic has prepared for the gig, when in fact they have only just seen them. Two topics on the night I went were "The Bill Cosby comeback tour" and "wheelie bin UBER". The first of which led to some genuinely funny stuff and the second, on the night, in the moment, less so.
The audience are happy to take the misses along with the hits however as it's all part of the game. Indeed some comics got laughs out of their failure (meta comedy). Others approaches it tactically. For example, one comic, before he'd seen the topic, told the audience that he had lots of ideas for start-up businesses. Then he turned round, saw the topic was “domestic electric chairs” and made out that was one of his business ideas. At the Fringe this year, I also interviewed the brilliant political comic Ahir Shah for my book. Here he is doing Set List in 2014 where he also uses this device of setting up a framing to the opening question before he starts riffing on it. Ahir described this approach to me as "gaming the game". He later goes into a lengthy, mock historical discussion that is funny, spontaneously in the moment, because it's coming through his established persona, tone-of-voice and point-of-view that has been built up over many, many hours of stage time.
Could a brand new comic succeed at Set List? Perhaps they might get lucky here and there, but it'd be a huge ask of them to keep the ideas coming without a clear and established persona, while working the room and making self-referential meta comments.
The experienced comic has had the stage time (plus perhaps, ahem, coaching and directing) to find their persona along with the ability to hold an audience and work the room. Nevertheless, not all experienced comics could do Set List. Some are not comfortable improvising and are more closely scripted. All comics will ad-lib a bit and work the room but how much improvising they do versus prepared material in any given performance will vary from almost nothing to a great deal. Meanwhile, Set List itself, in common with other kinds of improvisation shows, overwhelmingly produces ephemeral material that doesn't have any kind of afterlife. It wouldn't work outside the context of the game.
There is however another kind of writing-on-stage that stand-ups do where the intent is to develop material that can be used again and again. This is the new material night or the preview show (aka 'work-in-progress'). Here, again, the audience know what the rules of the game are: namely that they will see some brand new and evolving material that will be hit-and-miss. The comic will openly acknowledge this and, for example in the case of Daniel Kitson when I saw him do a warm up show in Edinburgh 2016, they might even ask the audience for suggestions on how to finesse a gag and might make notes as they go along. And overwhelmingly comics will audio record or video these kinds of gigs, the better to develop the material in light of the performance.
At a new material night or a preview show the material a stand-up is doing might already be pretty worked up. Or it could just be the inkling of a comic idea, closer to the potentially funny starting points of Set List. I remember interviewing Richard Herring years ago. At the time he was improvising the telling of a story where he was involved in a fracas outside a nightclub. The comic angle was that he and the other man were both middle class and neither knew how to fight. He was working towards the stand-up version of the story by repeatedly telling it to audiences. This writing-on-stage will at some point lead to material that has settled down but never become totally fixed. Even the more tightly worded one-liner comics like Milton Jones might go on stage with a comic premise for a joke worked out and then let the exact wording come to them in the moment.
And finally, to bring this all together and address the central part of the question – emotional versus the intellectual creation of material – even an ad-libbing comic on stage will be operating on both levels. The ‘emotion' as Ronan puts it, will be the comic's persona, their attitude to the topic, their genuine feelings in-the-moment. With experience comes a sense of how these feelings can be deployed in a funny way: they have found their persona. But even in the midst of an improvised rant, for example, the intellectual part of the comic will be making adjustments, judgements and calculations. This is true in Set-List, in new material nights or previews and also with comics like Ross Noble who do a lot of ad-libbing in their actual, finished shows where they move seamlessly into and out of more prepared material.
And with more considered writing that it substantially prepared in advance, head and heart both have a role to play. I always advise acts to write a long, messy, free first draft of something where the persona and emotions are in play. Then, having left it for a day or a week or more, when returning to it afresh, the intellectual side, takes charge. Then the material is edited, rewritten, punched up and structured for performance. But if the comic then leaves some scope for the unconscious creative brain to work on stage then once again head and heart are operating, ideally both grounded in an established comic persona.
Two key aspects of your persona are your status and your attitudes. Have a read of this and then get someone who knows your act well to say how they see your status and to pick attitudes for you. (It's easier for others to see your persona than for you to see it yourself).
STATUS: What do they see as your funniest status? I think in terms of three levels: 'high status', 'low status' or 'audience's mate'. In high status you look down on the problems of the world and your life (or simply on the audience) from a lofty position of insight and wit. In low status you are put upon by the problems of the world and your life (or by the audience and the performance situation) and are struggling with them. In audience's mate status you share the problems of the world and of life with the audience, and you laugh at them together. These status levels can also be enriched by considering two: a primary one and a secondary one.
ATTITUDES: The attitudes you typically take to the subjects and situations you talk about are a key part of your persona.
“I thought when I was 41, I would be married with kids. Well, to be honest I thought I would be married with weekend access.”
Sean Hughes: A typically pessimistic attitude from the late comic.
“We do not go in for philosophy in this country. We have our own system. It’s called wondering”.
Al Murray as the Pub Landlord: A typically no-nonsense attitude.
Your persona (as is the case with Sean Hughes) might be a mix of positive and negative attitudes. The positive being why we like you and the negative being why we find you funny. (Where an act is overwhelmingly negative there is something about their charm, or nihilism or sheer front that is appealing and enables at least some people to warm to them.) A big part of the funniness can come from switching between attitudes.
For the audience to laugh they have to like you – even acts that are deliberately nasty are still in fact liked by those who laugh with them. So try and identify what makes you likeable and do more of it. Self-deprecation is one potential route to likeability and your positive attitudes will help the audience like you too. Get whoever is reflecting your persona back to you to pick three positive attitudes from this list to describe your persona. These are the things the audience will like about your
Then the dark side! The negative stuff (the funny stuff.) eg: rudeness, impatience, arrogance... Now get your feedbacker (if that's a word) to pick three negative attitudes from this list. These are the funny ones.
There is even more on persona in chapter 1 of my book The Director's Guide to the Art of Stand-up.